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The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
This review is from: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Paperback)
'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' follows the lives of Tomas (a Czechoslovakian surgeon), his wife Tereza and his mistress Sabina during the Prague Spring of 1968 and the turbulent years that followed the event.
At heart, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the story of how three very different people attempt (and repeatedly fail) to reconcile their differing views of love. Tomas, for example, has promiscuous sex with as many women as possible, but he is only in love with one woman - his wife. For Tomas, love and sexuality are distinct and separate entities, and he has no moral scruples about loving one woman while sleeping with many:
"Tomas came to a conclusion: making love with a woman, and sleeping with a woman, are two separate passions, not merely different, but opposite. Loves does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."
By contrast, Tomas' wife Tereza believes in marital fidelity - she loves her husband and blames herself for his womanizing life-style. Her despair in life comes from an unresolved personal mind-body dualism; she believes that Tomas loves her soul, but not her body. This fundamental difference in sexual behaviour is the conflict that underpins the entire novel - there's a heartbreaking pathos forged out of the relationship between Tomas and Tereza; their great depth of feeling is persistently tested by their irreconcilable views of love.
The third major protagonist is Sabina, an artist with an unusual take on the concept of `betrayal'. Sabina feels oppressed by her parochial ancestry and the artistic limitations imposed on her by the communist occupation. As a result she deliberately distorts - in a highly visual manner - the everyday objects that surround her. One particularly memorable scene has Sabina straddling a mirror on the floor of her studio, completely naked except for her father's bowler hat. This serves as her own personal deconstruction of her father's puritan legacy and turns the conservative image of the bowler hat into a symbol of her sexual emancipation.
But I don't want to rant on about the characters too much, because by far the most interesting voice in the novel is that of the narrator. Although he is never formally named, he speaks with a first-person identity and possesses an intimate knowledge of the characters and their actions. It's probably safe to assume that the voice of the narrator is actually the voice of Milan Kundera himself.
This narrator is the source of a great deal of comedy in the novel - for no sooner than a scene is over does the narrator immediately start to critique the action. He often criticises the characters, their behaviour and even, in some brilliantly observant and hilarious acts of humility, the actual writing of the novel.
This creates an unusual reading experience. It's almost as if Kundera wrote two books - one of them a novel, the other a harsh yet humorous critique of the novel. He then mashed them together into one coherent volume, so that the reader receives a running-commentary on the events of the book as they occur. My description probably doesn't do it justice, but I assure you, this works brilliantly well.
Further to his practical criticism, the narrator also engages in long philosophical speculations; this is what really sets the novel apart from all others that I've read. The philosophy is relevant and enlightening, yet simultaneously very tongue-in-cheek. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins by challenging and dismissing Nietzsche's idea of eternal return (the concept that everything occurs and recurs ad infinitum), but then the novel constantly replays the same scenes over and over to the reader - albeit from different perspectives.
The narrator will open up a philosophical discussion by defining his terms in a charmingly idiosyncratic manner. These terms will then recur throughout the novel. As the narrator introduces more and more concepts into his discussion, the language of the text becomes more and more esoteric. So much so that, by the end of the novel, there is such a breadth of specific terminology being used that the final fifty pages or so would barely make any sense to somebody who hasn't read the first few hundred. In other words, Kundera develops his own secret philosophical lexicon and shares it with the reader. This successfully creates a unique feeling of intimacy between narrator and reader, who share a common language, unknown to anybody else, exclusive to this narrator-reader relationship.
The novel's philosophy is as broad in scope as it is focused in linguistic detail. Kundera rigorously analyses what it means to `be' in the world by exploring some unusual but striking contrasts. Sexuality is examined through multitude, not intimacy. Politics is explored through love and marriage. There's even a long, very funny and thought-provoking attempt to reconcile the act of being God, with the fact of bowel movements. The narrator even muses, as I've glossed over, on the creative operational aspects of writing:
"Characters are not born like people, of women; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered, or said something essential about."
'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' is a wonderful book. It's tragically moving yet charmingly funny and self-aware. Pathos and philosophy, comedy and culture criticism all merge seamlessly and intelligently. If I was forced to draw any criticism against it, it would be that the narrator is significantly more interesting than any of the characters, but this is a very minor complaint. At worst you might argue that the book is merely a love-story masquerading as philosophical didacticism; at best The Unbearable Lightness of Being may inspire you to re-assess what it means to be in love, be in work, be political; in fact, you may find yourself questioning what it means to `be' in the world altogether.